Saturday, October 24, 2009

Grassroots + Power I: First, The Problem

Power, and the structures of power in society, interest me. I've written a play about the colonial power structure (based on Vaclav Havel, the history of Beirut, and the 2006 Lebanon War). I've written essays on art as the performance of political power, and theories on the masses (as they relate to the movie Dark Knight). If I wasn't going down the path of being an artist, I would be studying the Cold War (especially George F. Kennan, who I wouldn't go so far as to call a hero, but certainly an intriguing figure).

I say this because, in a strange way, this somewhat esoteric-sounding set of interests have become the center of our national dialog right now--a dialog that people in my generation take for granted as having been ended, but which a determined fringe continue to place at the center of discussion, the central ideological conflict of the Cold War: what are the responsibilities of the government?

Obviously, this is a genuinely interesting and complex set of issues. But in the Cold War, this became a Manichean conflict, wherein there were only two sides: Democratic-Capitalism and Authoritarian-Communism. For my generation, that Manichean conflict seems rather silly. Most people I come into contact with realize that since FDR, the US has been a socialist country, and that even at the height of Leninism was more capitalist then its ideals would admit (when I was young, I assumed that the Soviet Union had no currency, because why would a country that apportions goods equally need currency?)

This is what the problem is today: in the wake of the Cold War, we need right now to take a deep breath, step back, and really ask: What do we expect from the US Government? What are the responsibilities of government, what powers should it have, and which ones shouldn't it have?

In the last century, we've given the US Government broad powers over interstate commerce, and national surveillance. For instance:
  • The US Government now has the right to track people's reading habits
  • The US Government now has the right to measure the quality of foodstuffs
  • The US Government now has the right to apportion radio wavelengths, deciding who has the ability to broadcast
Those are just three arbitrarily selected issues in which the 21st Century America has power, but the 19th Century America did not. I'm not passing judgment over that.

The problem is, we're not having a healthy discussion as to what our government should or should not be involved in. The Health-care Debate is a clear example of this. I have not yet heard a compelling, intellectual argument on either side as to why government should be involved in health-care. I've heard practical arguments on behalf of government intervention, and I've heard emotional arguments for and against.

It may seem like an academic exercise, but the fact that we're not bringing our critical thinking and intellectualism to bear on this issue is a problem. The Founding Fathers may have written the Constitution on largely practical grounds, but they made sure to explain everything intellectually.

Now, the reason I brought this conversation up is because I commented on a conference call I was on with Kalpen Modi about the 9/11 National Day of Service. This prompted a rather surreal backlash against me from people I've never heard of, who found my blog because of a Big Hollywood article (which I haven't read and am in no hurry to go out and find).

What I was curious about was that they had attacked me for being a naive artist who did not question the power relationship between grassroots organizations and the government that was interacting with them. For example, one of the closest to being a measured response (it starts off as a real comment, and then slides away at the end):

You wrote, "My this: the Obama Administration wants to create a grassroots arts policy..." This is a contradiction in terms. If the policy is created by the administration, it is not grassroots. "Grassroots," by definition, means coming from the bottom up, from the lowest possible level. What the administration intends is to create the illusion that the policy is grassroots and whoever buys into it is a willing tool of deception.

Partly, this comes from a mistatement on my part. The commenter sees me as advocating allowing the government to come up with a policy which we grassroots supporters will carry out as willing partisans. My meaning was not that. my meaning was that the Administration should come up with a policy that interfaces with the existing grassroots organizations, to help them in whatever they're already doing, rather than creating their own policy and imposing it.

In other words, instead of directly running an arts program, they just want to help arts programs that are already out there. In the same way that the Office of Faith-Based Initiatives doesn't run a church, it just helps existing faith-based programs (that's another good question: does helping existing faith-based programs violate church and state, if it turns out to be truly equal opportunity?).

What the commenters seemed unable to distinguish is what the relationship of power involved is. Here are some hypothetical relationships between government and artists:
  • Government A buys art organizations and appoints NEA officers to run them.
  • Government B gives the NEA powers to license performances: unlicensed performances are made illegal.
  • Government C passes rules saying that the NEA can only fund Pro-America productions. The NEA evaluates grants based on their content.
  • Government D creates a web listing of currently existing arts-charity programs, to help donors find them.
Can you spot which option does not involve the governments dictating content to the arts?

Now, Government D (which is the US Government, if you didn't catch my thinly failed allegory) is not controlling the arts. It might be subtly highlighting arts it likes over art it doesn't like, but that's not a gross abuse of power (if you want to see gross abuses of power, see parts one-three).

In the current anti-government liberatarian extreme climate, even the third is considered untenable. Because there is no examination of power going on, no real examination of how the government is getting involved. You just say "the government might be involved" and the response is "NO THAT'S AUTHORITARIANISM."

And in other debates, the same conflation is going on. The current health-care debate is so far centered around comparing the Public Option to Government-Run Healthcare. But it is not. There is currently no mechanism in the Public Option that allows the Government to run Healthcare. However, if the US Government had a public option and was given broad powers to interfere with its competition through regulation, there might be some trust issues to be raised. That's an argument I'd be interested in hearing.

The idea that the government will get between you and your doctor is valid. But only because insurers are already a step between us and our doctors. The current system does not allow you to simply accept whatever treatment your doctor proposes. And the argument that the government will tell your doctor whatever treatments they can or can't prescribe is silly because the FDA already does that.

Those are power relationships. The FDA's power to regulate what procedures are allowed is a power relationship. Having people rely on the US Government's money is a power relationship. The Insurance Companies, however, also have power relationships. They have the power to grant or deny care. We rely on them for their money. And we have very little power over either of them. Our democratic voice is a somewhat indirect check on the US Government (for a number of reasons), and our "consumer choice," in practice, is a rather poor check on insurance companies.

Instead, we need to pit them against each other, because their weapons against each other will be a much better check than our weapons against either of them. When Alexander Hamilton talked about political parties in The Federalist, he talked about how our government was designed on the assumption that government officials would be greedy and ambitious. The way he solved that was by trying to pit the different ambitions against each other.

Artists do need to be wary of the government. The government may propose partnerships in the future that are not so loose and free. But if we don't figure out how to talk about those power relationships, how to understand what really are the checks and balances involved, then we're just going to get into irrational arguments about the powers of government.